On August 2, 1944, 2,897 Roma and Sinti, men, women, and children incarcerated in Auschwitz-Birkenau were loaded onto trucks, transported to gas chamber V, and liquidated as part of Hitler’s genocide. All of them were killed in a matter of hours, their bodies then disposed of in the crematorium. Upon the liberation of Auschwitz by western forces in 1945, there were no Roma or Sinti among the survivors.
Today, Roma all over the world commemorate the Porajmos (Romanes for “the Devouring”) in which hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti were exterminated. For years, Roma have been advocating for the official recognition of August 2 as a Memorial Day of the Romani Genocide.
For decades, the German authorities and other institutions refused to recognise that the Roma were victims of a genocide, specifically targeted by the Nazis for extermination as “racially inferior” and “enemies of the race-based state”. While the historical record is not disputed, for many years there was no political will to recognise the obvious.
This lack of recognition had direct consequences for Romani survivors in Europe. The West German government only recognised the racially based nature of the killings of Roma in 1982; due to the delay, many of the survivors died before receiving compensation that the government had made available to other victims.
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Why is it important that we acknowledge the genocide against the Roma? Roma organisations hope that the commemoration of the Porajmos will raise awareness of the reality Roma face today, which is characterised by discrimination, marginalisation and violence.
There is no group in Europe that is targeted with more ferocity than the Roma and none that faces more exclusion and discrimination. Roma all over Europe are exposed to hate speech and violence. Politicians throughout Europe target them as scapegoats for the ills of the society at large. In recent years, a stunning number of high-level, “mainstream” politicians (including the former president of France, a former foreign minister of Romania, a former justice minister of Denmark, a former prime minister of Italy and a UK MP) have spoken of Roma as predisposed to crime.
The echoes of Nazi Germany are chilling: They could have been quoting Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, who published similar racist remarks in 1938. Other public figures have gone even further: In France a mayor suggested that Hitler “did not kill enough” Roma. In Hungary, a leading journalist and co-founder of the ruling Fidesz Party, published an op-ed calling Roma “animals” that “need to be eliminated” “right now by any means”. Extremist groups in Hungary, the Czech Republic and elsewhere deliberately adopt Nazi tropes and tactics; for example, conducting jackbooted marches through Romani communities carrying flaming torches.
While states pledge support for Roma integration in international forums, state policies and practices at home have produced increasingly segregated societies. Physical walls have been built in Slovakia, Romania, and elsewhere to separate Roma communities from the main population. Romani families have been routinely evicted from city centres in France, Italy, Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria. A Hungarian city recently offered to pay Roma tenants to leave their rental homes on condition that they agree to settle only outside the city.
Romani children continue to face segregation in schools, including tracking into special education. Such segregation, coupled with racist speech, leads to dehumanisation and creates a climate that enables violence, examples of which are all too common, such as the ethnically motivated killing of six Roma including a four year-old boy in Hungary five years ago, or the recent brutal beating of a young Roma boy in France.
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“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This quote from Santayana is frequently cited to demonstrate the value of analysing and commemorating the difficult past. Commemorating the Roma genocide serves as a tribute to the victims as well as a testament to the strength of the survivors. But mere recollection of an historical tragedy will not undo the widespread anti-Roma racism of today. Stopping hate speech, hate crimes, and institutionalised racism is the responsibility of everyone, from those in the highest positions of power right down to the person on the street.
So in addition to this symbolic step of commemoration, this anniversary of the Roma genocide is a fitting time for leaders throughout Europe to make a simple pledge: that of zero tolerance for anti-Roma hate speech. Public officials or political party leaders who make anti-Roma statements – tarring all Roma as criminals or inciting people to violence against Roma – should be forced to resign from their positions. No exceptions. This by itself will not solve the “Roma problem”, but it would be refreshing indeed if the leaders of Europe would exercise some real leadership.
Robert Kushen is the Chair of the Board of Directors of the European Roma Rights Centre.